Friday, April 22nd, 2011

A Ruralophillic Detour

Today is Good Friday, when Western Christians begin celebrating the central narrative of our faith around the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s a time people often spend with family, and I’ll be heading down to visit mine.

Which brings up something that, while I guess it isn’t a big secret, many people don’t know about me, which is that I actually grew up in a rural area. Although I am the Urbanophile, I spent over half my life in the country and small towns. So in honor of that, and a recent delightful visit to the small college town of Alma, Michigan, I wanted to highlight some resources for those of you who are interested in rural development.

The first is Mike Knutson’s most excellent blog Re-Imagine Rural. This is probably the best site I know containing serious thinking focused on rural issues. It’s a must read and I have it in my reader.

Richard Longworth is another great resource. Another Midwestern small town product who lives in Chicago, he literally wrote the book on the Midwest economy in the modern age, Caught in the Middle, which contains some great material on rural areas and agriculture. He also blogs over at Global Midwest and tags his posts about rural areas so that you can easily find them. One particular great starting point is A Region on the Mississippi.

Longworth’s organization, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, also publishes a series of research papers called the Heartland Papers. One of them is called Past Silos and Smokestacks: Transforming the Rural Economy of the Midwest by Mark Drabenstott at the Rural Policy Research Institute in Missouri. It’s very focused on regionalism in rural economic development and definitely worth a read.

The US Department of Agriculture has also done some interesting work. One of their research papers I’d particularly like to highlight is Nonmetropolitan Outmigration Counties: Some Are Poor, Many Are Prosperous (h/t Jim Russell).

This is a short starter list. Please feel free to add your own pointers and treat this an Easter weekend open thread. See everyone next week.


16 Responses to “A Ruralophillic Detour”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    This is from the “conclusions” section of the Department of Agriculture report:

    “Remoteness and a lack of landscape amenities are key to explaining high outmigration in most, but not all, cases. Many outmigration counties are found in Mississippi, eastern Kentucky, and other rural areas with long histories of poverty, which is less characteristic of counties in the Great Plains.”

    Hmm. People leave places that don’t have landscape amenities. People also leave poor places with little economic opportunity. These are the two distinct causes of rural population shrinkage.

    These non-metro area lessons probably apply to metro areas, too, and would explain a lot of the population shifts reflected in Aaron’s now-famous US map of county population changes.

  2. Andy says:

    Alma, that’s quite out of the way. How did you enjoy your visit?

  3. Mike says:

    Aaron, I’m humbled that you include ReImagine Rural on your list of blogs to read. Although I’m a “ruralophile,” I glean great insights from the Urbanophile that apply to rural areas – especially as they relate to branding, talent attraction, and design.
    And while I am proud to have my name associated with ReImagine Rural, the blog belongs to the Rural Learning Center in tiny Howard, SD. Our mission is to help rural communities re-imagine their futures. Too often, our small towns long for the past and attempt to recreate something that won’t return. This must change. In the upcoming months, you will see changes in our site with more being published by other RLC staff members.

    Onto your call for resources: When we started blogging back in 2008, we couldn’t find many people talking online. Recently, the conversation has grown. I’d recommend three organizations in rural Minnesota. First, there’s the South West Initiative Foundation and the West Central Initiative Foundations. Both maintain blogs, which focus more on their organization’s work, but I’m always impressed with what they are working on. And I’d also recommend the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship in Lincoln, NE. They don’t blog, but their site does contain a wealth of research on rural entrepreneurship. And if you ever see any research conducted by Ben Winchester, a senior research fellow with Minnesota Extension, I’d gobble it up. He’s one guy I really pay attention to.

    Thanks again for the plug. And I like your one-day detour.

  4. Jarrett says:

    I think your headline’s coinage needs to be “Ruralophilic,” or perhaps “Ruralophiliac”.

    I’ve never seen any contradiction between loving cities and loving rural areas. It’s the stuff in the middle, an expression of the fantasy that you can have both at once, that’s aggravating.

  5. Jennifer says:

    do any of these resources/people include arts and culture in their work?

  6. the urban politician says:

    Can somebody explain to me why rural areas need economic growth?

    Isn’t that what metros are for?

    This is precisely one of America’s biggest problems: everybody thinks they need economic growth. That’s why we continue to divert infrastructure investment away from our already established cities.

    Let Kansas be Kansas. It’s really not that hard. Until America figures this out, we will continue to pit town and State after town and State in a silly, stupid, worthless jobs war. I agree with a lot of what RL says, but would go even further than him in condemning rural America with every little rural municipality trying to become “the next Atlanta” or “the next Charlotte”.

    America already has all the cities it needs.

  7. the urban politician says:

    To add to my point in my last post, the reason China is smashing America’s too-too in this economic race right now is because you don’t have rural villages in China trying to woo jobs away from Shanghai. Only middle-America does stupid stuff like that.

    China is investing in its cities, and if people want jobs they are moving to those cities and taking advantage of its assets. That is making Chinese metros far more competitive than American ones. Americans want to sit in their cul-de-sacs in some dull suburb somewhere in Texas and somehow steal jobs away from Chicago or Cleveland.

    The American formula is failing. In part I blame some of the bloggers here like RL or even Aaron for continuing to encourage every single corner of the midwest to seek out economic growth or opportunity as if it is something they are entitled to. They are not. Stop trying to save small town and rural America–allowing them to decline into a sleepy economic oblivion is the best thing for America’s future.

  8. Wad says:

    The Urban Politician wrote:
    the reason China is smashing America’s too-too in this economic race right now is because you don’t have rural villages in China trying to woo jobs away from Shanghai.

    China did that under Mao, and the results were catastrophic.

  9. the urban politician says:

    I was driving from Racine to Lake Geneva, WI yesterday (talk about a ruraphilic detour!) and noticed how quickly things got really rural when you got west if i-94.

    It really struck me just how much of America looked like this prior to the 1980’s or 1990’s. But even in this rural landscape there was the occasional nasty subdivision of god-awful post-1990’s homes. What the hell are these houses doing here? Other than farming and the occasional inn or tavern, perhaps a store here or there as well, why is there any reason for these homes to be built?

    Why does there HAVE to be economic activity here? We have Milwaukee, we have Racine, Kenosha, and of course metro Chicago. Build your homes there.

    Our rural areas are in jeopardy because of this inane mentality. I think I’ve overkilled my point now. Thanks for listening to my rants, people…

  10. Alon Levy says:

    I think you’re conflating two kinds of growth. One is economic: people getting richer and affording a higher standard of living. Another is physical: more infrastructure, more office parks, etc. One of Jacobs’ most underrated and misunderstood points is that these are different things. Small towns and rural areas can be very rich without having a lot of exurban infrastructure.

  11. TUP:

    China has many internal policies which restrict the sort of intra-national migration you propose: Chinese are, generally, not permitted to relocate without permission from the receiving community–and such permission is seldom granted. It’s one of the few (if only) countries I can think of where there is a disparate legal class of migrant worker consisting of citizens from the same country–many workers from the inland provinces come to the city to seek out work (legally and otherwise), much as Mexican laborers come to the US for the same reason–but in many cases, leave their families behind (and send them back money) are are not entitled to remain long term. In general, Chinese may only receive social services from the government in the town where they are born–unlike in the US, where citizens can relocate at will and demand government services from their new locale as soon as their hat is hung on the wall.

    There is a ridiculously wide gulf of living standards between the great coastal metropoli and megalopoli (Beijing, Shanghai, and the Pearl River delta) and the inland provinces–and it is this gulf that enables China to continue to plead poverty in international forums when it is advantageous to do so.

  12. the urban politician says:


    I see your point, but in America wealth appears to come from subdivisions, strip malls, highways, and new industrial properties built in far away exurban areas that cannibalize the existing economic core of metros.

    So while it may be quaint to imagine a countryside of rich rural villages, in America there is really no such thing.

  13. Chris Barnett says:

    TUP: think of Midwestern places like Lafayette, Bloomington, Princeton, Greensburg and Columbus, IN; Athens and Marysville, OH. A lot depends on what you consider “rural”. Lafayette and Bloomington are pretty good sized, but the rest are smaller than middlin’ suburbs. As a city person, when I can see cornfields 5 minutes drive from City Hall or the County Courthouse, that’s “rural”.

    They may not be “rich rural villages” but they are comparatively well-off small cities. Yes, three have major state universities. But Lafayette and Bloomington were/are also factory towns: Cat, Alcoa, and Subaru in Lafayette; GE and (formerly) RCA in Bloomington.

    Columbus might be an historical anomaly, in that two manufacturing-era entrepreneurs set up shop there and for the second half of the last century, two Fortune 500 headquarters were there. That core attracted many other manufacturers, including many US branches of Japanese auto suppliers…which may in turn have attracted Honda to Greensburg, just 25 or so miles east.

    And Marysville is one of the poster children for small-town/rural industrial development, the forerunner of places like Princeton and Greensburg.

    Small town and county executives look at these successes and say “why not here”? Every town that has nabbed a transplant auto factory loves the well-paid workforce. The list is almost too long to recite now and includes towns in maybe 10-15 states in the Midwest and South.

    Maybe there really are some “rich rural villages” here, but not because they’ve stayed rural. The wealth comes primarily from making things. Still.

    And the suburban subdivisions and strip malls do follow, Alon. Office parks, not so much; more typically “industrial parks” focused on small manufacturers and logistics/distribution.

  14. Jennifer, ReImagine Rural would be the best place to look for arts and culture.

  15. Paul says:

    To those who are arguing that “America already has all the cities it needs:” consider that the European settlement of the great majority of the territory of the Midwest is only a little more than two hundred years old. True, many of the major cities have origins in military installations built somewhat earlier, three-hundred to three-hundred fifty years ago. Is it really plausible to argue that no new cities will or should arise in the next century?

    Just recall how arbitrary is the success of the cities and towns that have survived from the initial westward progress (due in large part to getting lucky and/or canny with regard to transportation facilities, e.g. railroads, highways, built in the last 150 years or so). The Urban Politician is right to predict that many existing localities are likely to sink into sleepy economic oblivion; but that decline will coincide with (rather than crowd out) the rise of new and unexpected urban places, themselves picked out by economic factors that may be unpleasant or unwanted, but which are almost certainly NOT on anyone’s radar today.

  16. Baja says:

    “So while it may be quaint to imagine a countryside of rich rural villages, in America there is really no such thing.”

    I don’t disagree with your general premise, but the above statement is simply not the case. I know of several rich rural villages within an hour of my Texas home. These are places that have not sold out to the tourism industry and survive on an odd mix of ranching and oil and gas income. Lately, they’ve added wind to the mix. I have been to other such communities in eastern Washington and Oregon, Montana, and Arkansas as well. It seems to me that the geography of these places discourages uniform outmigration and that, in turn, allows small towns to remain relevant. That said, there aren’t all that many of these places left. I’m no expert. These are just my observations. Thank you for the forum.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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